It was after hours and Less was making the short walk home from the train station when a large, tall shadow crept up to him and matched his pace.
"Evening, Constable," said the silky, deep voice. It was Septimus Snow, the Master of Grief whose domain was intelligence gathering among the supernatural communities.
"Good evening, Septimus," replied Less brightly. It had been a good day at the station and he had reunited several mortals with their lost possessions. "Will it be a long night tonight?"
"I think it will not, and that worries me." He was silent as they passed from the sidewalk into Less's apartment building and Less sensed that he didn't want to discuss the matter bothering him publicly. Septimus was never very chatty, so it was a quiet journey up to his floor.
Once inside his apartment, Septimus spoke on the matter that brought him to Less tonight. "My informants in the Brimstone Barony have gone silent. Well, not exactly silent but unable or unwilling to impart information for the usual fees. This has me suspicious the Baron is up to something. Although it's not exactly your field, you have a reputation for acquiring information when you need it. Perhaps you have contacts that might know more what the Winter fae are about?"
Less put the kettle on out of habit. Snow, the uncivilized brute, didn't care for tea but he had a weakness for sugar cubes. Less took the chipped porcelain sugar bowl down from the cupboard and put in on the table next to the teapot. "The Baron is ambitious and therefore he is always up to something," growled Less. "But something must be different if our Unseelie friends are unwilling to say anything about it. Thanks for the heads-up. I might just have some contacts in East Mythic, if they haven't dried up as well. I'll get in touch as soon as I can and let you know how I fare."
The kettle boiled and Less paused their conversation while he poured. After he was seated, and the earthy aroma of his special blend settled his mind, he continued. "And the vampires? Still minding their own business?"
Septimus dropped a pair of cubes into his tea. While he stirred he considered the question and assembled the data he'd already gathered. Conclusions about such shadowy creatures must always be drawn carefully, lest their machinations mislead one into complacency. "I would suggest extreme care if you find yourself in the presence of a vampire. My informants have revealed a kind of black market operation in which vampires hire third parties to collect persons that interest them. They desire capable servants and do not appear to care whether said servants are willing or not." He put down the teacup and leaned forward. "Nor are all such servants, strictly speaking, human. My spies suggest certain of our more mercenary fae brethren have captured other supernaturals, therianthropes to be precise, in exchange for quite a lot of money."
"They are selling werewolves to vampires!?" Less exclaimed. "The money must be very good indeed to let themselves get between those two groups." He would have his Sergeant-in-Mourning investigate suspicious financial gains in the fae population.
"Have you seen Claire recently?" asked the Constable. "Has she returned to the Mainland?"
"She had, but then left to meet with the Lady of the Ishtar Gate to negotiate for its use. I suspect she thinks it's location would be helpful in her work." That wasn't a surprise; Cassandra's gate was at a very strategic point because it was just within the region in the Fae Realm considered to be territory of the Golden Mesa, yet Cassandra did not hold the gate in the name of the Countess; she held it personally and only let those she chose to deal with access it. The gate was known to be powerful, but the magical energies empowering it were strange. Some thought it was changing the fae lady who held it, and not for the better.
Less nodded, considering. "If you see her, tell her I hope she doesn't put herself into too much debt." He and Cassandra had many mutually beneficial dealings in the past, but in the troubles over the past year he had been forced to call on her assistance more than he could consider fair. He wasn't sure of his position with her these days but Claire shouldn't be taking the Warden's expenses on herself alone. Thinking about the mysterious, scaly, and efficient woman led him to change the subject once again. "Will you be attending the Harvest Ball this year, Septimus?"
"That's a funny story, actually. I was asked to go by Basilia Allison." It sounded neither funny nor like much of a story, except possibly for what Septimus was not saying. Less knew Basilia was a fair one. Her gift was that she seemed almost human until she moved. When she wished she moved with spellbinding, supernatural grace. Some speculated there was a Sidhe Lord or Lady -- or both? -- in her family line, and probably no more than a generation away. Her choosing Septimus seemed rather like a humming bird choosing a crow as a mate. But by his blush, Septimus seemed rather pleased and flattered by it. "In truth," Septimus continued, "I had not intended to go, for I can think of no lonelier place than being by yourself in a crowd. But after careful examination of the facts, I have determined Basilia is genuinely interested in going with me." No doubt Septimus was twice as 'careful' as he intimated -- he was a cautious person. That led one to wonder just how strange and awkward that conversation might have been.
There was a knock at the door. Septimus looked up. "Are you expecting company, Constable?"
"No, I am not!" he hissed, standing quickly. "Wait in the other room." Less waited until the other Warder was safely out of sight before he opened the door on it's chain to see who was there.
When Rey walked in from a bit of grocery shopping, a house that looked like it had been tossed by professional enforcers met her eyes when she opened the door. Only weirder. The kitchen was littered with broken plates, half-eat bags of food and a carton of milk had left most of its contents on the floor. The refrigerator door was hanging open.
A picket line had been set up by sticking sharpened pencils into thawed bread dough and part of the makeshift, minute fortifications actually looked burnt. Curtains were in tatters as perfect rectangles had been cut from them. Furniture was filthy and it smelled like smoke (but thankfully, not blood).
The only creature in sight was Hamilton, who was comfortably curled up in the remains of destroyed throw pillows.
"Hamilton, what on earth happened here?" she asked in surprise.
He blinked and yawned. "War maneuvers, I suppose."
"War maneuvers. What for? Are they expecting the house to be attacked?" She looked around. "And where are they?"
"I won't pretend to understand or even desire to understand the reasoning of pixies, but I heard yammering about the Evil One or some such. Now I suspect they are off nursing fake war wounds and sleeping off a mac and cheese coma," he said.
Rey shook her head. "Sergeant Thorn, front and center!"
There was a rumble in the cupboard, then the door opened and a cup fell out, crashing onto the counter. The door revealed a little winged man dressed in a uniform apparently made from a section of curtain. He had cheese all over his face. "Yes mam-sir!" He saluted with a slap to his forehead.
"Explain this mess," Rey said, gesturing at the shambles they'd made of her kitchen.
"A post revel, your golden royal-ness!" he announced proudly. "All will be well in the morning. Except we are out of milk, mac and cheese." He peeked down at the floor. "Uh, the cat did that."
"That I believe," Rey said. "I want this battlefield cleaned up before suppertime. Understood?"
"Yes mam-sir, glorious queen of gooey deliciousness!" He saluted again. "Form-TO! Hep Hep!" At his shouted commands pixies began to pop out of coffee mugs, napkins made into beds and from under furniture. Most grumbled darkly, but they all began working with his prodding and shouting. Once the work began, Hamilton was conveniently nowhere to be seen.
She shook her head. It is typical of him to disappear whenever there was work to do. She'd put the groceries away later, once the pixies were finished in the kitchen. Tomorrow she'd look into new curtains.
Rey went into her office, set the groceries down on the small couch, and went to her desk. The pixies would be working for a little while yet, so she had time to check her email.
First up was a secure email with a formal announcement and printable invitation to the Golden Mesa's annual Harvest Ball. RSVP was requested by midnight tonight and the event was to be held in three days. It was very soon, but Rey knew the Countess probably was trying to keep interference from trouble-making sources to a minimum by giving them less time to intercept an invite and sabotage the location. Speaking of, the invite specified an old outdoor drive-in theater. Apparently, the Countess was planning on running The Wizard of Oz and Oz. Refreshments and entertainments were provided and dancing encouraged.
Rey quickly sent off a reply that she would be attending but did not print out the invitation quite yet. She'd do that later, closer to the event. That taken care of, she looked at the other emails and saw there was nothing that couldn't be dealt with later. She turned off the monitor and went back to the kitchen to see how things were coming along and found the place had been picked up, although a team of sprites were struggling to clean up the spilt milk with a mop that was several times too big for any three of them to handle.
"That's alright," she told them. "I'll take care of the milk." Rey looks around for Thorn. "Hamilton told me this battle had something to do with an Evil One. What is that about?"
Thorn was sitting on the edge of the table, legs dangling, overseeing cleanup operations. He reported, "Training maneuvers, Golden One. To prepare for when the Evil One sends in her forces!"
"And who, exactly, is the Evil One?"
"An evil fiend in a pretty package! On her last visit alone, she used her evil powers of sexiness to drive six good men, loyal troops before she came here, to admit desires to commit unwholesome acts with her!" He paused to consider, then added, "Plus Anna, but she was always a bit odd. So you see? She has already begun to sow sedition in the ranks! Next she will send her lovely minions into our dreams!"
"Hoo-hoo!" piped up a cleaning pixies. "She's already been in mine, I tell you what!" A chorus of suggestive laughs and sympathetic sighs were echoed around the kitchen.
"There's proof! The Evil One leaves her mark already!"
Rey didn't quite know what to make of it, and wasn't sure if she was going to laugh or sigh. "If you are concerned about her entering your dreams, why are you staging battles in the house that ruin the curtains and make such a mess?"
"Because stage three is home invasion! Alas we cannot keep the Evil One from our minds, but at least we can keep her minions from invading your home! It is our duty as loyal subjects of the countess of cheese!"
"I see. How did you end up burning the fortifications you'd built from pencils and dough?" Rey asked. Countess of cheese indeed. Chase would probably find that hilarious, she thought with a silent chuckle.
"Even good fortifications are vulnerable to fire, unfortunately," he admitted.
"I understand that," Rey said. "I just want to know if you used magic, matches or a lighter."
"We used the amazing, red-tipped torches you keep in the kitchen drawer," he said.
"Matches. Sergeant Thorn, you must be careful with those. If you set fire to the house I will be angry."
"Yessir, mam! Setting fire to the house is against the rules. Consider your command to be our wishes!"
"You are not to set anything in the house on fire either," Rey adds, realizing they might not consider setting the furniture on fire to be against her wishes.
He paused. "Not even for practice in case the Evil One lays siege?"
"Are you capable of putting out the fire should it spread?" Rey asked. "Do you have magic to stop it, or can you use the fire extinguisher?"
"Spread? And what's a fire ex-sanguinature?" he asked.
It was that moment when Rey realized the pixies probably wouldn't be able to work the fire extinguisher. "Don't worry about it," she said. "Just make sure any fires you burn only the things you make for your drills. I don't want to find any of the furniture or anything like that has been burned. And no burning the cat. And the next time you want to make yourselves uniforms, don't use my curtains. I'll buy you some fabric."
"Yes, our glorious monarch of Mac! It will be as you say!"
"Very good," Rey said. "Dismissed." She reached for the mop to clean up the milk on the floor.
Date for the Ball
"Please, Drake?" Mira was asking. She sat on the raised counter at the bottom of the large lecture hall. Drake had finished his last class hours ago and had cleaned up after a classroom demonstration when Mira had stopped in. She enjoyed showing up just after the last student left to distract him from end of day duties. She swung her legs impatiently. "I realize there hasn't been one of my kind to attend Harvest Ball in decades, but I'd really like to go. The Winter Court functions aren't any fun at all. Everyone is always trying to stab everyone else in the back. Sometimes literally. I just want to dance and drink and have fun. Will you take me?"
"But you wouldn't be welcome there," he replied. "And there is no way I could spend time with you without arousing suspicions."
"Suspicions? That you and I are together?" She grabbed his belt and pulled him closer. "I'm not a threat to the Golden Mesa. You know that. And you are an honorable man, above suspicion of disloyalty."
"You are Unseelie," Drake said. "And for most, that is enough. And you hold a position of power in the Desert Duchy."
She frowned. "How did you hear about that?"
"Does it matter?"
"Maybe," she said. She brushed her hair back from her eyes and searched his face. "It would really mean a lot to me if you let me be your date."
"Why is your heart so set on going?" Drake wanted to be able to be with her more than anything, but it was too dangerous. He was worried about being discovered here at the university, but he couldn't bring himself to tell her to stop coming.
"Because it's time. This rivalry is foolish. It's the Brimstone Barony that's the real danger, not the Duchy. Let's show them that the Golden Mesa and the Desert Duchy don't have to be enemies." Her eyes were liquid pools of promise of just how grateful she could be.
"Please, Mira, don't do this to me."
She put a finger on his chest, accusing. "You let fear rule you, my handsome summer prince."
"What is so important that you have to be there?"
She couldn't answer that. "I would never do anything to bring harm to you. I would let harm befall me first." She pushed him back and hopped down off the lab table. "Yet you still don't trust me."
"If you trusted me," Drake said. "You'd tell me the truth. If all you wanted to do was go out and have some fun, we could do that at Glasshouse." That place was a mixing pot of all manner of fae, and the two of them had been there before. It was far easier to hide they were together at such a public place.
"I have told you the truth. It's you who aren't trusting."
"I trust you with my life," Drake replied. "But I do not trust any other members of the Unseelie courts. I'm not stopping you from attending, but I cannot escort you there."
"You are right not to trust other winter fae," she said. "I am not asking you to. But if I am not brought as someone's guest, I'll be refused entry."
That was new. While the Harvest Ball had always been primarily a summer court event, fae of winter hadn't be specifically refused entry. Only in the past decade has relations between the courts fallen to such a state as to make winter fae completely unwelcome at the event. It sounded as if Mira believed that this year, winter fae would be outright refused participation. It wasn't a big surprise; things seemed to be deteriorating enough that it was inevitable. But it did beg the question of how Mira found out when Drake himself had not yet heard.
Then again, spying between the courts was rather rampant. It was how he had heard of Mira's appointment to the position of Sorceress, after all, a position that had been vacant for decades.
"Are you sure?" Drake asked.
She nodded. "Yes."
Drake was torn. He wanted to be able to be with Mira whenever, wherever, he wanted. He wanted to make her happy, but the only thing keeping them safe was the secrecy of their relationship. There would be ramifications for their appearance at the ball together, but Mira just wasn't seeing it. Drake thought she probably never would. He had to be firm, for both their sakes.
"I'm sorry Mira, but I just can't. It wouldn't be safe."
"I'll accept that answer," she said. "I don't want you to jeopardize your safety. If I see you there, I'll do nothing to betray that we've been seeing one another."
"I wish things could be different," he said and reached out to Mira, wanting to stroke her face and hold her.
"Me too." She didn't close the distance. She took a step back, then said, "I need to go now Drake."
His hand fell to his side, and he couldn't keep the disappointment and regret from showing on his face. He nodded.
She hated that she had to do this and inwardly cursed the situation that had forced it. Seeing him so upset made her want to hold him and tell him everything was okay, but she didn't. She turned away so he wouldn't see her tear up. She wanted to at least tell him she was unable to discuss why she needed to be there, but she couldn't even do that. The Duke's insistence on secrecy had seen to it. She couldn't even warn him about what she knew was coming.